In 2003, the most famous rock singer in France, Bernard Cantat, savagely beat to death his then girlfriend, actress Marie Trintignant, in a hotel room in Vilnius, Lithuania. Trintignant was on location, playing Colette in a film of the writer’s life; Cantat, already inclined to excessive jealousy, was drunk and under the influence of pot. He inflicted fatal injuries on her before slipping into an intoxicated slumber himself, eventually waking up and denying responsibility for what had happened. The forensic pathologist who conducted the postmortem on Trintignant said that he had never seen anything like her injuries.
A Lithuanian court sentenced Cantat to eight years’ imprisonment. He soon found himself transferred to France and has recently been released on probation by a French court after serving four years of his sentence. The family of the deceased, prominent in the acting world, objected strongly to what they considered Cantat’s premature release. Four years in prison did not seem to them sufficient punishment for such a brutal murder.
Before Cantat committed his crime, French youth saw him as a moral hero. He was a powerful propagandist for every political cliché known to the pop-music and show-business intelligentsia. He excoriated Israel, but saw no ethical dilemma in appearing in Assad’s Syria, supposedly in support of the Palestinians. He publicly insulted the head of the company that had made him a millionaire. What further evidence of sanctity was required?
His crime caused shock and some disarray. A few partisans of the victim purportedly sent him threats, while some of Cantat’s supporters have viewed his deed and subsequent repentance as proof of the tragic depth of his character. At any rate, news of the crime did not do his record sales any harm.
In setting him provisionally at liberty, the French court said that it was treating Cantat no differently from others who had committed similar acts (rumors had it that his wealth and celebrity had secured him special treatment). Cantat had shown serious and sincere remorse, promising to continue in psychotherapy even after his release. He had also promised not to refer to his crime in public pronouncements, or to profit from it in any way.
Yet his comparatively early release has given rise to public anxiety, and even outrage. Women’s groups have protested that his brief sentence is an insufficient deterrent to those violent and jealous men who, they claim, kill a woman in France every three days. It is a matter for debate, however, whether someone like Cantat would have behaved differently had he known he would go to prison for six, eight, or ten years, instead of only four. Perhaps in such circumstances, no deterrent, up to and including the death penalty, or life imprisonment without possibility of release, would have exerted such an effect—if this is so (though personally I rather doubt it), then insufficient deterrence would not be an argument against his release.
There are, however, other grounds for finding Cantat’s sentence unduly lenient. They have nothing to do with the quality of his remorse, which is likely entirely genuine; nor with the likelihood that he will commit a similar offense in the future—I would be surprised if Bertrand Cantat ever killed again. Rather, they have to do with the effect on the whole sentencing system.
If the state punishes a crime as serious and brutal as Cantat’s—and his intoxication, remember, was an aggravating and not a mitigating circumstance—with only four years in prison, how can the state repress other, less serious, but much more frequent and therefore socially destructive crimes, with any appropriate degree of severity? If severity of sentence ought to bear a relation to the heinousness of the crime committed, criminals sentenced to one or two years in prison for much less serious crimes could, perhaps not unreasonably, consider themselves victims of injustice. And such a thought is not conducive to honest self-examination, to say the least.
Leniency for the few, most serious crimes, then, entails leniency for the less serious but more numerous crimes that envenom and brutalize the lives of the least privileged and most vulnerable members of Western societies. Punishment is not psychotherapy; it would not have been unjust to sentence Cantat to 20 years or longer in prison. Such a term would have made the repression of other crimes much easier. A mere four years makes it almost impossible.